By Lynn Venhaus

A raw and real portrait of Native American life on an Oklahoma reservation, “Fancy Dance” is a haunting, heartbreaking missing-person drama from an interesting little-seen perspective.

It’s a slow-build from writer-director Erica Tremblay and co-writer Miciana Alise that turns into a slow burn.

A serious-minded Lily Gladstone plays Jax, a gruff and tough hustler living on the Seneca-Cayuga Reservation, trying to survive and help care for her 13-year-old niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). On the outside, she appears cold-hearted, but deeply cares about keeping her family intact.

She resorts to desperate measures when her sister Tawi, an exotic dancer, disappears, and their white father Frank (Shea Wigham) and his second wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski) are granted temporary custody of Roki once the Department of Family Services gets involved. Jax has a criminal record and is not allowed to have contact, let alone be guardian.

Tawi and Roki were preparing to dance at a big-deal annual powwow in Oklahoma City. Jax wants that happy experience for her niece, so she kidnaps the girl from her grandparents and goes on the run while an Amber Alert is launched.

Jax and her father, never close, have been estranged since her mother’s death and his move from the reservation.

Gladstone, all pent-up rage, and the pain of loss hangs heavy. While she seemingly does not want to abandon hope, she outwardly shows the strain of anguish taking its toll. Nevertheless, she is a fighter and summons every ounce of bravery she has.

While Jax attempts to get answers about her sister’s whereabouts and urge police to investigate, a stacked deck about the rough road for indigenous women and the justice system that fails them also unfolds. Their half-brother JJ (Ryan Begay) is part of the tribal police force, and he claims he can’t do much with the feds involved.

The tension is mild and the story meanders, but the film’s earnestness eventually gets it back on track. The acting is lived in, and the young actress Deroy-Olson gives a precious portrayal of an innocent girl having to grow up much faster because of her circumstances.

Wigham, a longtime character actor, isn’t given much to do in an underdeveloped role, but his Frank is not a villain, and seems sympathetic. After all, he is reluctant to get authorities after Jax.

Tremblay, who belongs to the Seneca Cayuga Nation, has written for the TV series “Reservation Dogs” and directed documentaries, but this is her first feature film as director. She is attentive to details regarding her tribal nation’s way of life. Along with production designer Charlotte Royer and cinematographer Carolina Costa, they have created an authentic atmosphere.

A sorrowful mood permeates this slice-of-community and culture because of how marginalized these characters have been treated their entire lives. Samantha Crain’s evocative score has melancholic tones but also joyous native rhythms.

The sobering realization of systemic racism and the entrenched colonialism makes this naturalistic piece stand out. However, the ending is abrupt and seems rushed. Yet, it ends on such a joyful, hopeful note of togetherness that you really want to root for these women to be comforted by their family connections.

But there is no denying the narrative’s impact. It makes you understand these women’s plight, forcing us to pay attention. And the performances are impactful in emphasizing the storytelling’s importance.

“Fancy Dance” is a 2023 drama directed by Erica Tremblay and starring Lily Gladstone, Isabel Deroy-Olson, Shea Wigham, and Ryan Begay. It is rated R for language, some drug content and sexual material, and runs 1 hour, 30 minutes. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opened in select theaters on June 21. It began streaming on Apple TV+ on June 28. Lynn’s Grade: B.

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